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Running with Your Dog: Wagging Tails on the Trails

Road warriors

If you're a runner (and even if you aren't), you may have considered running with your dog. Including your dog in runs can be a great way for both of you to get exercise, but it takes training and preparation. The following tips will help ensure an enjoyable running experience for both you and your dog.

running with dog

1. Make sure your dog is physically capable of sustained running.

Some dog breeds are not physically suited to running for extended periods. Brachycephalic dogs (dogs with shortened snouts, such as bulldogs and pugs) have a tougher time breathing, which can cause undue stress on their bodies when they run. These dogs also have more difficulty cooling off by panting, which makes them prone to overheating. While brachycephalic dogs may enjoy running in short sprints, they are not designed for sustained running.

Other physical factors can also affect a dog's suitability as a running companion. Long-bodied, short-legged dogs such as dachshunds are more likely to be affected by intervertebral disc disease. Larger dogs tend to suffer more from hip dysplasia, and some dogs have weakness in their knees or other joints. Before you start a running program with your dog, consult your veterinarian to find out if your dog is capable of handling the physical stress of frequent running.

2. Use a properly fitted harness.

When you run with your dog, attach the leash to a harness rather than to the dog's collar. No matter how well-trained your dog is, signals can still get crossed, and there is always a risk that the leash will tighten abruptly. Crossed signals can happen even when you are walking with your dog, but the problem is a bigger concern during runs due to the greater momentum associated with running. Momentum increases the likelihood that your dog will experience pain, and possibly even physical harm, if the leash tightens suddenly. A harness that has been fitted properly distributes the pressure from a tight leash across a larger and sturdier portion of the dog's body, rather than placing all the pressure on one side of the dog's more delicate neck.

3. Start slowly and condition your dog properly.

Just like people, dogs need to build up strength and endurance gradually. Introduce running by adding short bursts of running to walks. Walk with your dog for a short distance, then run for ten or fifteen seconds, and then walk again for a little while. Gradually increase the duration of the running segments and shorten the walking segments. Finally, decrease the number of walking segments. Make sure to give your dog a walk break at least once every 20 minutes, and to start and end each run with at least a few minutes of walking.

Avoid rushing through the conditioning process. Taking the time to properly introduce your dog to running will help prevent injuries. It will also give your dog time to adjust mentally to the new routine, so that both of you can have fun on your runs.

Teaching Cues for Walking and Running

4. Teach your dog cues for walking and running.

It's much easier to slow to a walk or speed up to a run if your dog knows what you are about to do. Teach your dog cues for when you transition between running and walking, using the same methods you would to teach any other pair of cues. I use "We're running" and "Let's walk" (chosen because each sounds quite different). For more information about paired cues, see Karen Pryor’s piece A Swinging Pair: Using Paired Cues to Accelerate Learning.

5. Teach your dog to run on a loose leash.

Running with your dog is much more enjoyable when your dog runs politely at your side. If your dog already knows how to walk on a loose leash, you can teach your dog to run on a loose leash by gradually increasing the speed and distance you run between segments of polite loose-leash walking. If your dog doesn't know how to walk on a loose leash, or if your dog currently finds running too exciting to keep the leash loose, you can teach your dog to walk and run properly on a loose leash.

Here's one way to do it:

When you go on your first training run/walk with your dog, bring about 200 treats and a clicker. I recommend using a soft, jerky-type treat cut into one-quarter inch squares (or smaller). Bravo! makes all-natural treats that come in relatively small cubes and can be easily broken into small pieces. Carry the treats in a treat pouch (one option is the Karen Pryor Choice Treat Bag) or in an easy-to-access pocket. If you have trouble handling treats, the leash, and a clicker at the same time, you can use a marker that doesn't require your hands, such as a tongue click.

Teaching Loose-Leash Running

Decide on which side of your body you want your dog to run. Then, while standing still, click and treat your dog a few times for standing on that side. It doesn't matter if your dog is a little ahead of you or behind you, as long as the leash is loose (look for a J-shape in the leash). Feed your dog using the hand nearest your dog, placing your hand just behind your pant seam. Then take a single step forward and click and treat again, as long as the leash is loose and the dog stays on the desired side. Gradually increase the number of steps you take between clicks and treats. As you progress, it's a good idea to throw in an "easy" click after just one or two steps every once in a while, so your dog doesn't get discouraged.

Once your dog is walking politely beside you, start taking running steps instead of walking steps. Since you have just changed a major criterion—gait—go back to treating after each step at first, and gradually build up to clicking and treating less frequently. If your dog has a tough time keeping the leash loose now that you've sped up, try walking a little faster first, gradually accelerating to a very fast walk. Once you have achieved a reliably loose leash while walking fast, start running very slowly. Gradually speed up to your normal running pace. Bear in mind that if your dog lags behind as you speed up, you may be going too fast for your dog.

Running with your dog off-leash

If you are fortunate enough to be in an area where you can have your dog off-leash, you and your dog may enjoy off-leash running. The great advantage of running with your dog off-leash is that your dog can go at his or her own pace (pausing to sniff and explore and then catching up with you, for example). If your dog has the right temperament to be off-leash in public, and the environment is appropriate, off-leash running can be a great pleasure.

Here are some prerequisites for running with your dog off-leash:

  • It's legal to have your dog off-leash. Check regulations and posted signs to avoid tickets and other problems.
  • The route is free of hazards such as cars, barbed-wire fences, and dangerous animals.
  • Your dog has a superb recall, and will return to you when you call—no matter what.
  • You have trained excellent "drop it" and "leave it" behaviors.
  • Your dog is friendly, but will leave people and other animals alone when asked.

Carry a leash with you at all times, and use it if you have any doubts at all about the situation. If you have problems during off-leash runs—your dog bothers people or other animals, eats inappropriate things, or fails to come when called—stick to on-leash running until you have trained your dog properly for off-leash running.

With practice, you can decrease the number of treats per run and stop clicking entirely. It’s always a good idea to carry treats, though, so that you can reinforce your dog intermittently, as well as in the presence of unusual distractions.

6. Have a plan for dealing with distractions.

During runs there are likely to be distractions such as squirrels and other dogs. It's important to have a routine response to these situations. For many distractions, simply reminding your dog that you are running (I use my running cue, "We're running!") and going by as quickly as possible is sufficient. For other distractions, you may need to increase distance from the distraction by moving away laterally, or offer your dog a treat to help get his or her mind back on the run. In some cases, it's best to let your dog interact with the distraction, but on your terms. There are great suggestions for dealing with distractions in this recent article by Casey Lomonaco.

One handy method of dealing with other dogs during runs can be summarized as "Say Hello, 1, 2, 3, Let's Go." Be sure to train the necessary behaviors on walks before requiring them on a run, of course. Here's how the dog-greeting plan works:

STEP ONE: Say Hello

Whenever you are near another dog, your dog must ask for permission to greet that dog. He or she can do that by making eye contact with you, by sitting, or through any other behavior that works for you. For practical reasons, on a run I generally only require eye contact.

The time it takes for your dog to ask permission gives you the opportunity to assess the situation and decide whether greeting this particular dog is a good idea. Being required to wait for permission also encourages your dog to show self-control upon seeing another dog, and discourages simply lunging over to greet the other animal.

If your dog's way of asking to greet the other dog is acceptable, and you feel the other dog is a safe bet, give a cue that indicates permission to say hello (I use the phrase "Say hello"). If your dog did not ask politely, or if you are concerned about either dog's behavior, keep moving—but do give your dog a treat if he or she asked nicely, even if the dogs don't get to greet.

STEP TWO: 1, 2, 3

Assuming you've given permission to greet, as soon as the dogs start sniffing each other (and even sooner, depending on the approach), silently start counting to three—not too fast, but not slowly either. Watch carefully for any signs of increasing tension in either dog and break off contact before you actually count to three if necessary.

STEP THREE: Let's Go

Once you have counted to three, give your dog a cue to let him or her know you are about to start moving. If you have already taught your dog a running cue, you can use that cue. If not, teach a cue that means it's time to move on with you (I use "Let's go"). Whatever cue you use, make sure it has been trained with positive reinforcement so that your dog has good associations with it. The cue has to be reinforcing enough that your dog is willing to give up sniffing to move on with you.

Short interactions like the ones you get with "Say Hello, 1, 2, 3, Let's Go" minimize the odds that either or both of the dogs will get overexcited or accidentally do something the other dog considers rude. It also gets you back into your run faster, while giving a highly social dog an outlet for his or her friendliness during runs.

7. Take frequent walk breaks.

Exercise is only one of the benefits your dog gets from going on a walk. Other benefits include opportunities to sniff, listen to, and watch interesting things. Dogs also tend to empty their bladders and bowels during walks. A run can be good physical exercise, but if you don't give your dog the opportunity to explore and interact with the environment, your dog may experience more stress than fun. Stop at least once every 20 minutes, using your "walk" cue to signal the change in pace, and give your dog a few minutes to sniff around and relieve him or herself. Regular walk breaks help your dog recharge between bouts of running.

8. Offer your dog water frequently.

Carry a water receptacle (a fold-a-bowl like the Travel Bowl Duo works, as does a plastic bag) whenever you run with your dog. Be sure to bring water, unless there are reliable water sources (such as water fountains) scattered throughout your route. Offer your dog water at least once every three miles, and more frequently if it's hot or your dog is panting excessively. Bear in mind that your dog may not always want to drink when you offer water, but it's important to provide the opportunity.

9. Clean up after your dog.

Carry poop bags such as eco-friendly Scoopies, and clean up after your dog. Even in rural and park areas, it's best to pick up poop and throw it away in an appropriate trash receptacle, as dog feces can spread disease and upset the natural balance of the environment. In many areas, cleaning up after your dog is required by law.

Always watch your running companion closely for any signs that the run is no longer a positive experience.

10. Always put your dog's needs first.

By making the choice to run with your dog, you are making the choice to put your dog's needs ahead of your own. Unlike humans, dogs don't sweat, so they overheat more quickly. Many dogs will continue running even if they are tired, have blisters on the pads of their feet, or have pulled a muscle. If your dog seems fatigued, stop, offer your dog some water, and check for cuts and other injuries. Always watch your running companion closely for any signs that the run is no longer a positive experience.

It's up to you to protect your dog from harm during runs, which means that your dog may not be the ideal running buddy for quality runs such as long runs and tempo runs. In runs of this type, the distance may be too great, or your dog may need a break just as you're hitting your stride.

Running can be a great way to explore the great outdoors with your dog and to increase both your fitness and that of your dog. Being prepared and attentive, and following the common-sense tips outlined here, will get you started on the right foot.

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